Q: Affordability

In which neighborhoods and what mix should affordability be found? Please also discuss strategies you believe are effective at reaching affordability targets, and those you believe are ineffective. Please cite specific examples from other cities. Example strategies include:

  • Preservation of older housing and retail, and other means to prevent displacement;
  • Increased housing supply and microhousing;
  • Incentive zoning;
  • Seattle Housing Levy—please also discuss any specific changes to the program or amount that you’d favor when the Housing Levy is brought up for renewal in 2016; and
  • Multi-Family Tax Exemption.


Mike McGinn:

McGinnNeighborhoods across Seattle should include a range of housing types and price points. Seattle needs policy tools to address housing needs across the spectrum of income and family sizes. There are substantial unmet needs for housing affordable to individuals and families earning incomes from 100% AMI all the way down to below 30% AMI. I believe we need tools to address that full spectrum of need. That said, families in the lower income brackets often struggle the most to find available housing that they can afford within the city. Tools like the City’s Housing Levy play a critical role in continuing to build units that are affordable to people earning less than 60% AMI. I will work to renew the Housing Levy in 2016.  In addition, the city plans to update its Comprehensive Plan in 2015, including the Housing Element, and through that process I will also look at ways to improve existing policy tools and add new policy tools to further incentivize production of units that are affordable across the full spectrum of need.

Increasing housing supply and reducing the costs of developing new housing are other tactics for creating more affordable housing outside of the Housing Levy. In the past four years we’ve been able to reduce costs of development through the previously mentioned regulatory reform package, as well as through the Multi-family rezone, which reduced parking requirements and included a number of new affordability incentives.  In addition, we’ve made great strides in creating a regulatory framework that can help to encourage greater housing supply.  I’ve supported the development of low cost market rate housing like micro apartments, which are a good way to provide low-rent living options for people want to live in the city. And I’ve supported development in neighborhoods like South Downtown and South Lake Union as well as areas around transit stations, which have been rezoned to accommodate more new housing.

Even now as the economy is recovering, Seattle has rents that are too high for many (especially those earning minimum wage) to afford. The recent South Lake Union rezone is a good example of how more affordable housing could have been realized but was not – as the package proposed to City Council included potential for more affordable housing than the legislation that passed. In fact, my proposal would have raised 2 million more for affordable housing in South Lake Union than the council-adopted proposal, because council reductions in new building capacity reduced the potential for new affordable housing fees.

Ed Murray:

MurrayEvery neighborhood should have affordable housing options. Of course, no single type of affordable housing is adequate across demographics and neighborhoods, and as I mentioned above, there is no-one-size-fits-all approach across the city to growth or the housing approaches we will need to accommodate that growth.

I think micro-housing is a useful affordable housing option for lower income people and singles. Particularly in the University District, South-Lake Union and some areas on Capitol Hill, where there are concentrations of students, young people just starting out in their careers, and single professionals, micro-housing is going to be an increasing part of the mix.  These developments are ideal for residents who don’t spend much time at home, need to live close to where they study or work, want to be very nearby vibrant entertainment districts, and place a high premium on the availability of a variety of transit options. We need to make sure that micro-housing developments are consistently regulated across city departments and that our building codes are updated to address the growth in this sort of housing.

More generally, too often currently the important questions around growth, density and height – key variables in the affordability equation – are driven by factors other than sound policy considerations. And related zoning issues are considered in silos, rather than understood as being part of an integrated plan to move forward on development issues in a way that channels growth into the places that are slated to accommodate it while ensuring that growth includes housing affordable to Seattle residents at all income levels.

The recent debate about incentive zoning in South Lake Union is only the latest example. It concerns me that the SLU process went on for more than five years and yet we never created an effective plan to develop the levels of affordable housing that we need – none of the approaches put forward by the mayor and the Council come close to meeting the stated goals — and instead we became fixated on battling over arbitrary levels of affordable housing fees. The question we should be asking is, “How do we best develop a holistic approach to affordable, and particularly workforce, housing that creates the numbers of units that we need in the designated locations?”

That would require an integrated plan that would not only set the level of incentive zoning affordable housing fees, but also consider that decision in tandem with other decisions the city makes about allowable height and density in the parts of the city like South Lake Union that are intended to grow, and would include finding creative ways to leverage existing surplus city properties in SLU and other parts of the city.

Bottom line: we want to create compact, diverse, more dense, green, walkable and transit-friendly neighborhoods that include a mix of housing appropriate for people of all income levels.

Richard Conlin:

McGinnIt is important to include both key levels of affordability in an affordable housing strategy. First, we must emphasize the critical need for low income housing for those who are priced out of the market, 30-50% of median income and below. People in this classification have few options, and as the federal government reduces its commitment, it is important that the City, SHA, and non-profit providers have options and opportunities to develop new housing and preserve and renovate existing stock where that can be done. The housing levy is a key tool for this purpose, as are the payments from the incentive zoning program – $80,000 is enough to leverage tax credits and levy funds to create a new low income unit, while it costs much more to provide a unit on site. We should be careful about how we structure the incentive program to ensure that we do have the resources for this level of low income housing.

The second level is what is called ‘workforce housing’, available for those at 60-80% of median income. While some of this is provided by the market, especially in outer neighborhoods, this is where key tools like the multi-family tax credit and incentive zoning performance on site are critical tools.

It would be great to have all of our neighborhoods include all levels of housing affordability, and we must ensure that all of our neighborhoods have a fair share of low income housing. However, it is more difficult to finance affordable housing where there is new high-rise housing being developed than in other areas where land is less expensive and lower buildings mean lower construction costs. For this reason, it is again important to recognize the tradeoffs and find the right balance between ensuring that all of our neighborhoods have some diversity of housing and being able to take advantage of lower costs in some areas to provide more housing for the available dollars.

It is critical that we increase the supply of housing in general, both to allow the market to provide some check on rents, and to ensure that everyone who wants to be in Seattle has an opportunity to live here. I support continuing to increase our zoning capacity in urban centers and villages and station areas, setting policies that provide reasonable opportunities for infill development, and recognizing the role that micro-units can offer for people who are looking for that kind of residence. Our zoning policies should encourage more cottage housing, more opportunities for Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, and a diversity of multi-family housing types.

The length of time and complexity of our permitting process drives up the cost of housing. If the permitting process is too long and cumbersome, investors will walk away, financing costs increase, and the housing gets more expensive. Since 95% of our housing is developed by the private sector, and demand is outstripping supply, we must focus our permitting process on the aspects that really matter.

Transportation strategies cannot be separated from housing strategies. Our Comprehensive Plan is built around creating urban villages and centers that are linked by walking, bicycling, and transit opportunities to reduce dependence on the private automobile. The more transit we create, and the more housing we concentrate where there are good transit options, the more likely it is that the housing will be affordable. In calculating affordability, a standard assumption is that people can afford to pay 30% of their income for housing, and that 10% of their income goes for transportation. If we can reduce the share that goes for transportation, we can increase their options for finding affordable housing, and that is the core reason why transit oriented development can make such a contribution to providing homes for people. Parking requirement further drive up costs, and transit communities with limited parking will have less expensive housing.

Finally, I worked to increase the size of the last housing levy, and we should continue to increase the size of the housing levy, and keep most of its focus on the lower levels of affordability, while including some portion for workforce housing in order to help provide balance and take advantage of opportunities for developing that element.

Kshama Sawant:

sawantAffordability should be found in all Seattle neighborhoods. To preserve some neighborhoods for the wealthy is inviting the city to deprioritize and defund neighborhoods where the greatest needs exist, in order to make even more pristine the neighborhoods where the rich reside. This will also deepen the process of gentrification and marginalization already taking place, and destabilize our communities. Studies show that violent crime rates, drug abuse, and other social ills are correlated with inequality, not necessarily poverty.

I support preserving and renovating older housing and retail to prevent displacement, and also because research indicates that retrofitting old infrastructure can sometimes be more environmentally sustainable than building new infrastructure.

We must control rents and raise wages in order to put families in the vacant homes and apartments that already exist in Seattle.  After that, we can increase the housing supply, ensuring that it is spread throughout the city, high in quality, eco-friendly, and subsidized for low-income people. However, microhousing is not the final answer.  Microhousing is immune from the neighborhood review processes that other housing typologies must follow, increases population density, has improper parking spaces which increases the amount of cars parked on the streets, and tenants end up paying more per square feet to live in what virtually amounts to a closet space. The main argument for microhousing is that it provides affordable housing, when really we should be talking about making housing affordable by capping rents, raising wages, subsidizing the costs for low-income people, and building housing as public projects.  People should be able to afford housing that is safe and spacious enough to meet their needs.

I am in favor of incentive zoning, but it needs to go a lot further than the ordinance that we currently have.  More bonus density should be set aside as affordable, environmentally and socially responsible construction standards should be written into the ordinance, and there should be target hirings of low-income residents.

Even with its shortcomings, I support the Seattle Housing Levy in its attempt to provide more affordable housing for people with low income. However, I would advocate that all taxation to fund the levy be progressive, in that the rich should pay a higher proportion of their income and wealth than those in lower income brackets.  For similar reasons, I support the spirit of the Multi-Family Tax Exemption, but think that shortcomings lie in its focus on giving builders tax breaks as a solution to unaffordable housing. There are more effective solutions like enacting rent control or implementing a city public works project to build affordable housing, which will break our dependency on private contractors and won’t sap the public coffers of tax money to fund other projects.

Sally Bagshaw:

BagshawThis answer will complement my answer to number one and four above. Affordable housing in this city – as well as ever other major city – is shockingly hard to come by. In South Lake Union for example, 80% AMI requires a family of four to have an income of $69,000 annually. Housing may be available for certain well paid Amazon or bio-tech employees for example, but will not be available for the hotel workers who commute to Seattle from Tukwila and make less than $20,000 per years.

Every neighborhood should have housing options at multiple prices up and down cost spectrum. This is frankly an easy thing to say and a harder thing to accomplish. Think Laurelhurst neighborhood as an example. That is an upscale neighborhood with very little space (or appetite) for new development. Only on the margins, or along Sandpoint Way, will empty lots be available where middle-income housing will be built. The city has helped create low-income housing in and near Magnuson Park. That’s a good start.

This means that our most realistic opportunities are to create housing where infill space is available – along Rainier and MLK Way for example; along Aurora where some not-so-savory buildings could be replaced by affordable and sustainable multi-family housing near our light rail and rapid ride stops. We can also creatively use those light rail stops to build multi-family on top of the stations. Whenever we think about building something new, we should consider the filter: 100,000 more people coming into our city. We need to create spaces for them to live. After all, these are our kids and grandkids who are coming home.

I am a longtime supporter and advocate for the Seattle Housing Levy and other programs that create and protect affordable housing options. I look forward to working to pass a renewal Housing Levy in 2016. I also strongly support zoning incentives and other policies that encourage development of affordable housing.

I will work to form agreements between the City, Metro, King County and Sound Transit to develop affordable housing on land near the Light Rail Line and major arterials. The transit oriented development process surrounding the Capitol Hill Station is a great example of collaboration on development projects with affordable housing at the forefront. The recent development agreement that passed through the City Council will result in the land directly surrounding the Capitol Hill Station being developed with more than 35% of the units being dedicated to affordable housing. This will be done by dedicating an entire building to affordable housing and increasing building heights to allow for more affordable units.

Sam Bellomio:

BellomioI can speak to the declining affordability directly. 2 years ago I rented an apartment in Capitol Hill for $1150 a month. The next year it went up to $1250. Now, the rent for the same apartment is $1400 and I had to move. This is not something that our elected officials have to worry about.

Each council member makes $120,000 per year. This is 3 times higher than the average citizen. They do not feel the impacts of the average citizen because they are at the top 5% of wage earners. Their friends are the developers, the businessmen and the people making all the money.

It is the poorer, less connected citizens that are feeling the impacts.

The poor and working class families are being forced into the south end of Seattle while downtown is being created for single, higher income citizens.

Micro housing is not a solution for families, zoning and tax exemptions only encourage corruption and the selling of our public land to corporations is the nail in the proverbial coffin. Each options has its place but the first thing we must focus on is community control of our public lands. We must stop the selling of our public land, such as Yesler Terrace and parts of South Lake Union, and using them for the public good. It is the banks and developers that benefit from the sale, not the citizens. We can, as a community, create the spaces that our citizens need. The answer is simple. How do we create affordable housing? By doing it.

Nick Licata:

LicataAffordability is when housing costs do not exceed 30 – 35% of income (depending on the definition used). Affordability in a neighborhood is demonstrated when people of a diversity of income can live within a neighborhood without spending more than 30 – 35% of their income on their housing costs. Citywide affordability, if realized, would mean people have a choice. All of Seattle’s neighborhoods should offer choice. Our city is growing and with that growth comes increased wealth. People who have been living in our city for decades and those who come here and want to start their life are often priced out of Seattle. We have to do better. We should listen to the concerns of our neighborhoods and use this right-from-the-source information to plan better for our future.

Preservation of our existing housing stock is critical as well. For this reason I worked on – for nearly 5 years – passing legislation to create a rental housing inspection program to improve the conditions of renters living in substandard housing as well as encourage stronger maintenance practices so that fewer properties fall into irreversible disrepair and are less vulnerable to redevelopment so that we can be successful in preserving the existing rental housing stock. I continue to monitor program implementation. DPD is currently working with stakeholders to develop inspection standards, fee structure, and information and outreach elements for the program. Key issues will include how notice of inspections will be provided, what are tenant rights for refusing entry, and what issues or standards will the inspections cover. The work is scheduled for 2013 is nearly complete. The first registration requirements will take effect next year. Inspections will begin in January 2015.

We should consider all housing options from ADUs to micro units to high rises in finding solutions that work for all our residents.

When we rezone to accommodate growth, we should use incentive zoning policies to meet our affordability goals and our job growth targets. Much of our growth in the coming years is going to happen in places like the Urban Centers of the University District and South Lake Union. I worked to ensure affordable housing was available and practical for South Lake Union and I intend to meet the challenge of development in other areas with equal energy. But creating a livable area requires more than just an investment in affordable housing. There must be infrastructure to serve new residents to an area. This includes transportation, utilities, police, parks, communities and education opportunities.

I support the renewal of the 2009 Housing Levy in 2016. I would support an increase in funding provided by a levy renewal with a commitment to an investment priority towards meeting the greatest needs of the lowest income populations. Preservation is another important priority because it removes a property already providing low income housing from possible speculation forces, it preserves neighborhood character, and preservation is a more efficient use of finite public resources.

Mike O’Brien:

o'brienI believe every neighborhood in Seattle should include its share of low-income, workforce and market rate housing. This means we need every single one of these tools listed above, as well as the State Housing Trust Fund and federal HUD resources.

In the recent South Lake Union rezone, I led the effort to strengthen our incentive zoning program, which you can read more about at my blog or view in this video. Despite the efforts I led to nearly double the projected number of workforce housing units being produced in South Lake Union, we will still be over 3,000 units short of the projected demand for affordable units (at 60-80% AMI). This is why I also called for the review of our entire incentive zoning program, work that is now underway and will yield recommendations for meeting our future affordability targets that I plan to lead on in my second term.

In the Yesler Terrace redevelopment I led the effort to secure city funds to be seed money for a study to help build a cultural center for Little Saigon. We need cultural anchors in communities to help prevent displacement of a community’s historic residents. The Yesler project’s vast redevelopment threatened to gentrify that area in a way that threatens to displace small and family business owners in Little Saigon, and I believe I have a responsibility as a policymaker to work with that community on solutions that will help them preserve their presence and livelihood in the community.

Of course we must also preserve our current older stock while also making room for microhousing and other new housing options for a variety of income levels. I firmly believe there is great potential for further accessory dwelling unit development throughout Seattle’s many traditional single family neighborhoods that will help us meet our density goals while also preserving the character of the neighborhoods.

Albert Shen:

ShenI do not have any specific examples from other cities but I do have an example from a specific neighborhood in Seattle. The cost of living in Seattle is continuing to increase and access to affordable housing continues to be more challenging in Seattle. We need to find ways to work with the affordable housing community and find areas to strategically develop more robust affordable housing so people of more modest incomes can live and enjoy what Seattle has to offer. I served for 8 years on the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority Council. During that time we advocated/supported, constructed and managed many low income/affordable housing projects in the Chinatown/International District. Over 4000 residents live in the Chinatown/International District and many of them are immigrant-working families who depend on the affordable housing units within the neighborhood. My office is in an affordable housing complex in Chinatown/ID and I see on a daily basis immigrant families that: shop for their Asian groceries; go to their language specific health clinic; senior day care center; children’s park; and other community based services that provide for their community. Because of my direct experience with the SCIDpda I have the ability to advocate for an overall comprehensive city strategy that will seek to solve our affordable housing challenges. I believe we have an interesting opportunity with incentive zoning to leverage private/public partnerships to use in other neighborhoods such as the Chinatown/ID. We can use these fees to fund other housing projects, public safety, transportation enhancements, or other local economic development initiatives that will help grow local communities and make them more viable.

Bruce Harrell:

HarrellWe should strive to achieve a mix of affordable housing throughout all of our urban villages and centers. Access to a reliable mass transit system and local neighborhood jobs will improve our lowincome residents living environment and quality of life. Effective affordable housing strategies include: increased housing supply and micro housing options, incentive zoning (particularly in or near the new development), Seattle Housing Levy (to increase inventory funding), and the Multi-Family Tax Exemption program. We shouldn’t selectively depress a neighborhood’s growth potential just to keep one or two affordable housing spaces, but look to incorporate affordable housing in the new developments at minimum on a one to one replacement ratio. I would like to explore with the voters in 2016 an increase in funding for the Housing Levy to include a slightly more aggressive approach to building additional family shelter facilities as supplement to the one family shelter we currently maintain.

Peter Steinbrueck:

SteinbrueckDiverse housing choices should be available in all of Seattle’s great neighborhoods, but unfortunately is not. Affordable housing is becoming increasingly out of reach for many. We need to plan better, and zone appropriately, for the full spectrum of housing types, from micro units and ADUs, to low-rise, to midrise, and high-rises. New housing should be sensitively placed and scaled to respect established neighborhood character. Neighborhood residents should have a voice in shaping the future. There is an important role for design review in achieving best results in architectural form, character, and scale.

Preservation of older multifamily housing supports neighborhood character and affordability, and should be carefully considered in neighborhoods, such as South Lake Union, which are experiencing growth pressures.

When rezoning for growth, the city should honor and adhere to its comprehensive plan targets (jobs and housing) and affordability goals for the development of new housing in urban centers such as South Lake Union, University District and Northgate – where 60 percent of Seattle’s residential and job growth are planned. Infrastructure investments must be made to support growth, such as transportation improvements, utilities, police, fire, parks, community centers, family friendly amenities, and schools.

One example of coordinated planning between land use and transportation planning for housing affordability is Transit Friendly Communities, or Transit Oriented Development (TOD). Nationally, there is no clear definition of TOD or agreement on desired outcomes. However, by zoning for compact pedestrian-friendly communities and placing affordable housing close to transit, household expenditures for transportation-related costs can be reduced, and ridership expanded.

These are worthy goals for our city, and it’s the concept behind the city’s Transit Service Overlay districts along the Sound Transit stations. The objective is also intended to support economic development and regional growth management planning goals. This is a long-term strategy – as build out is incremental, and car dependency is still very much a fact of life for most residents in Seattle.

TOD results have met with varied success around the country (see “The New Transit Town, Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development,” by Hank Dittmar and Gloria Ohland, Island Press, 2004). If we can better tailor planning, urban design, and architecture of new stations and surrounding areas to protect distinct neighborhood character, while meeting specific needs in each community for walkability, livability and affordable housing choices, we will have more positive economic, social, and environmental outcomes that fulfill citywide goals.

Finally, Seattle can be a great city of the future! We are a dynamic city of thinkers and innovators on the move. Now, we need to be a city of doers and take the lead in charting the future course for sustainable urban development.